Q&A with Catherine Czerkawska

Posted on August 2, 2023

We spoke to Catherine Czerkawska, critically acclaimed historical novelist and playwright, author of The Jewel and The Curiosity Cabinet. She told us about her new book, The Last Lancer.

In this personal account of loss and survival in Poland and Ukraine, Czerkawska traces back her family history to Poland, when her father, Julian, escaped his war-torn home and settled in the UK, where Catherine was later born.

This Q&A was originally shared in our February newsletter. You can sign up to our newsletter here to be the first to read content like this.

Were you aware of the depth of your family’s rich history before you started writing this book? How much research did you have to do?

I’ve always known that the Polish side of my family had a rich and exotic history – at least exotic from the perspective of my own childhood in industrial Leeds. I did some research years ago, when I was writing radio drama and working on a couple of plays with a Polish background. I also wrote a novel called The Amber Heart, with a Polish historical setting.  When I realised how much I still had to learn, I asked my father to write down everything he could remember about his childhood in pre-war Poland, his knowledge of his family and his wartime experiences. Without that, everything would have been much more difficult. Later on, I did a huge amount of new research, most of it online, most of it during the pandemic, greatly assisted by several Polish friends. It would have been almost impossible without them.

Did you learn anything about yourself when writing the book?

I understand some of the contradictions in myself. I find myself very comfortable with the label ‘Citizen of Nowhere’ but really, I’m a citizen of Europe, with a background that encompasses many different identities. One thing that I did learn though, is that my attachment to my Polish heritage is passionate and visceral. It has got me into trouble on more than one occasion.

Did writing this book make you feel more connected to your ancestry, history and Polish culture? If so, how?

Yes, it did. It brought a vivid reality to something that had often seemed as remote as a fairytale. Family trees are a great starting point, but as a novelist and playwright, I have always been more intrigued by trying to bring people to life. All the same, when you begin to pin down dates and times, the reasons why some things happened the way they did become clear. I found that I had preconceptions about relationships, but the more I discovered, the more those preconceptions proved to be inaccurate at best. You still have to make leaps of imagination in this kind of research, but the more you know, the more ‘real’ those imaginings can be.

Was there anything in particular which prompted you to research your family history and begin writing this book?

I had written about the Irish side of the family in A Proper Person to be Detained, and I had always intended to do the same thing for the Polish side. The pandemic gave me space and time to do it, but I don’t think I realised the magnitude of the project or the emotional wringer it would put me through! If I had known, I might not have done it. But once started, I had to finish. It was harrowing but the need to find out never left me.

With the current war in Ukraine, how does this make you feel about the hardships your own family faced when leaving Poland?

I think most people of Polish descent have stories of harrowing experiences from parents and grandparents. But those forebears were very reluctant to talk about it in any detail. They maintained a discreet silence. Mostly, it was because they were leading new lives and the memories were deeply buried. I know that, if he had been alive, events in Ukraine now would have resurrected those memories and distressed my father terribly. In the past day or so, I learned of the death in Lviv of an elderly family member by marriage, a man who named one of his sons for my grandfather. He had spent many years in a Gulag when he was young, and now his final years were blighted by the same horrors from the same source. I find that unbearably tragic.


You can buy your copy of The Last Lancer here.